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Analysis: Babcock to face uphill battle with Toronto

by Dan Rosen /

In deciding to accept the contract offer to become coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday, Mike Babcock also accepted the offer to take on the greatest challenge of his career in the NHL.

"I think it is," NHL Network and TSN analyst Craig Button said.

It is because coaching the Maple Leafs at this time is unlike anything he has taken on in his career with the Anaheim Ducks, Detroit Red Wings, or Canada's Olympic teams.

Babcock won't have the best players or even prospects at his disposal when he starts working with the Maple Leafs. There is no Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk in Toronto. There is Brendan Shanahan, but he's the president of the team, not a 40-goal scorer as he was in his lone season playing for Babcock (2005-06).

Shanahan is also only 15 months into his job and he doesn't have a general manager in place, so Babcock will be working with a green management group. General manager Ken Holland and the Red Wings had won the Stanley Cup three times before Babcock got to Detroit in 2005. Bryan Murray was already a successful coach and GM when he brought Babcock to Anaheim in 2002.

And the Maple Leafs roster, as it is currently built, has proven to not be good enough to contend for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Despite all of it, Babcock will be paid $50 million over eight seasons by the Maple Leafs, according to TSN's Darren Dreger, to first bring the team back to respectability and then win the Stanley Cup. Anything short of that will be considered a disappointment based on the hype surrounding Babcock and the wealth of experience he brings to Toronto, including 527 wins in 950 regular-season games, an 82-62 record in the playoffs, and two Olympic gold medals.

"Brendan Shanahan said it's about having a stomach, being patient and doing things the right way, but understanding that winning won't happen at the same rate as it did in Detroit is a challenge for Mike," Button said. "It's great that he got eight years and Mike will do his thing, he won't be a lesser coach because he has lesser talent, but the leap of faith for Mike is a feeling that the players will come in here and they will be able to ultimately win. If Mike doesn't see signs that good players are coming in here and they can challenge the top teams in the Eastern Conference, that's when the patience will be tested."

That Toronto hasn't won the Stanley Cup since 1967 shouldn't be as big of a warning sign about how challenging this will be to Babcock as the fact that the Maple Leafs have cornered the market on collapses the past three seasons with the same core of players.

The Maple Leafs blew a three-goal third-period lead in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins in the 2013 Eastern Conference First Round. They frittered away what appeared to be a sure playoff berth in 2013-14 by finishing the season 2-12-0, starting with an eight-game losing streak. They were a semi-respectable 21-17-3 through 41 games this season and went 9-27-5 in their last 41 games.

All of this is telling of the fact that Toronto's roster isn't close to being good enough. But the current roster clearly wasn't a deterrent to Babcock, nor should it have been.

The reported length of the contract (eight years) says everything you need to know about how Babcock feels about the Maple Leafs right now and how confident he is in himself.

Eight years means Babcock knows this is going to be a long-term project to get the Maple Leafs to where he feels he can get them. And make no mistake, he is confident enough in his ability and experience to be the coach who finally wins the Stanley Cup in Toronto.

If it happens, the odds that Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, and Joffrey Lupul will all be around to be a part of it are remarkably slim.

They made up the core that Shanahan challenged in January, after he fired Randy Carlyle and named Peter Horachek as interim coach.

"We're going to learn a lot of things about our core in the coming weeks," Shanahan said in an unscheduled press conference on Jan. 9 before a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Maple Leafs won nine of their last 41 games with Kessel scoring seven goals.

"The job didn't get done," Shanahan said at his end-of-the-season press conference on April 13, the day after he fired general manager Dave Nonis. "They're professionals and I'm not here to pile on top of them, it has been a difficult season for them.

"There will be some changes," he continued. "We have some good pieces here. This is not a situation where we don't have anything to build from. They've been around, some of them, and they understand there are going to be changes made there as well."

The Maple Leafs have some building blocks in place for Babcock such as goalie Jonathan Bernier, defensemen Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner and forward William Nylander.

They'll get another blue-chip prospect with the fourth pick in the 2015 NHL Draft.

There is still hope for defensemen Petter Granberg and Stuart Percy, and forwards Carter Verhaeghe, Frederik Gauthier and Josh Leivo to have an impact.

Kadri and van Riemsdyk are young enough to where they can still be a part of the Maple Leafs' future under Babcock.

Kessel is clearly a goal-scorer that is essential to any team's success if he's on top of his game.

But make no mistake, the NHL roster needs a lot of work, and the core responded so poorly to Shanahan's challenge that it is impossible to think it will be the same core going into next season. It's impossible to think Babcock would accept the status quo.

Odds are he had these long discussions with Shanahan about what to do about the roster and about a culture in Toronto that of late has been free of accountability.

In accepting the Maple Leafs' contract offer, Babcock accepted the responsibility to be front and center in changing all of that. It's his greatest challenge yet.


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